On Saint Nicholas

There was a real Saint Nicholas and he seemed to be a pretty neat guy:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Saint Nicholas. There was a real historical figure – although now surrounded by much legend – that existed in the third and fourth centuries. His life and activities became the basis for who we now run with at Christmas: Santa Claus.

I write about him here for three reasons. One, it is nearly Christmas. Two, I am sometimes asked how Christians should think about Santa. And three, every year at this time some Grinches will come out of the woodwork and harshly judge and condemn any Christian who dares to celebrate Christmas.

These folks claim it is a pagan event and believers should have nothing to do with it. I have been on the receiving end of too many of these judgmental and ungracious folks. They are keen to treat you as an arch-heretic if you so much as wish them a Merry Christmas. But I explain why they are historically and theologically mistaken in this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/11/12/christmas-of-pagan-origins/

So let me discuss the real Saint Nicholas. As mentioned, there is plenty of myth and legend that has developed around him, so historians say that we do not always know exactly what is true of this figure and what is not. But the following seems to be a more or less accurate depiction of the man and his mission.

He is said to have been born in the year 270 in Patara in Asia Minor – now on the southern coast of Turkey. He was a bishop in the port city of Myra. One article says this about his life:

His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. https://www.stnicholascenter.org/who-is-st-nicholas  

But when Constantine became emperor, Nicholas was freed, and he returned to his preaching. He is known as being generous in giving gifts to others, especially children. As one write-up about his life puts it: “St. Nicholas was beloved because he spent his life helping the poor and underprivileged. He was the first to initiate programs for mentally challenged children. His love for children led him to visit their homes at night disguised in a red-and-white hooded robe to leave gifts of money, clothing, and food in their windows or around their fireplaces.” https://www.christianpost.com/voices/what-does-the-bible-say-about-santa-claus.html

He seems to have died on December 6, 342 in Myra. The anniversary of his death became known as St. Nicholas Day. The article just quoted goes on to say this about him:

After his death, he was made the patron saint of sailors since his church was located in a port city and had an extensive ministry to those who traveled the sea. He was later named the patron saint of Russia. Nicholas was one of history’s most venerated saints, with more than five hundred songs and hymns written in his honor. Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti in 1492 and named the port after him. By the year 1500, more than seven hundred churches in Britain were dedicated to him. 

Now before some Christians get too huffy here, yes Protestants have a different view on the matter of saints than do the Catholics and the Orthodox. While they uphold certain noted individuals and elevate them as saints (whether venerated, worshipped or just admired), Protestants believe that all Christians are saints. That is, we are all set apart and sanctified because of the saving work of Christ on our behalf.

Thus Paul can speak to other believers as “the saints who are in Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1) or “all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Romans 1:7), etc. But there is no need to jettison important historical figures like Nicholas because of certain labels or titles attached to them.

One famous episode which I like – and other theological types might like as well – has to do with his supposed involvement at the 325AD Council of Nicea where the faulty Christology of the Arians was being dealt with. It seems that this heretical figure got under Nicholas’s skin, and so he smacked him in the chops! Hey, my kinda guy: literally fighting for the faith! Just kiddin’. One piece discusses the incident this way:

Arius, from Egypt, was teaching that Jesus the Son was not equal to God the Father. Arius forcefully argued his position at length. The bishops listened respectfully. As Arius vigorously continued, Nicholas became more and more agitated. Finally, he could no longer bear what he believed was essential being attacked. The outraged Nicholas got up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face! The bishops were shocked. It was unbelievable that a bishop would lose control and be so hotheaded in such a solemn assembly. They brought Nicholas to Constantine. Constantine said even though it was illegal for anyone to strike another in his presence, in this case, the bishops themselves must determine the punishment. https://www.stnicholascenter.org/who-is-st-nicholas/stories-legends/traditional-stories/life-of-nicholas/bishop-nicholas-loses-his-cool

This story may be more fiction than fact. But let me explain how we in Australia and America, etc, got to the place of having Santa around each December. It goes back to Europe, where various countries continue to celebrate his life and death. As a site I already referred to states:

Widely celebrated in Europe, St. Nicholas’ feast day, December 6th, kept alive the stories of his goodness and generosity. In Germany and Poland, boys dressed as bishops begged alms for the poor—and sometimes for themselves! In the Netherlands and Belgium, St. Nicholas arrived on a steamship from Spain to ride a white horse on his gift-giving rounds. December 6th is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe. For example, in the Netherlands St. Nicholas is celebrated on the 5th, the eve of the day, by sharing candies (thrown in the door), chocolate initial letters, small gifts, and riddles. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint’s horse, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for small gifts. Simple gift-giving in early Advent helps preserve a Christmas Day focus on the Christ Child. https://www.stnicholascenter.org/who-is-st-nicholas  

His story is especially well promoted in Holland where I used to live. One article says this about the situation there:

Legends about Nicholas gradually became entrenched in the unique cultural traditions of different countries. In the Netherlands, he took the form of Sinterklaas, a mythical figure said to have sailed from Spain with a Moorish helper named Black Peter (“Zwarte Piet”). Sinterklaas supposedly filled Dutch children’s shoes with treats and knew whether their behaviour was good or bad.

In North America, the idea of Sinterklaas arrived with Dutch immigrants, and his name became anglicized as Santa Claus. The publication in 1823 of Clement Clarke Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, commonly known as The Night Before Christmas, helped establish the modern image of Santa Claus, which was further popularized in the 1930s through advertisements for Coca-Cola. https://www.anglicanjournal.com/st-nicholas-a-legendary-figure-with-contemporary-relevance/


Yes there was a Saint Nicholas, who more or less morphed into our modern Santa. For a Christian to run with Santa a little bit, and to bring some smiles to some small children once a year is not in my view taking on the Mark of the Beast! And no, we are not bowing down to worship Santa, or a Christmas tree, or anything else this time of year.

Yes, Christmas has become really commercialised and the real message is often lost, but there is no need to condemn everyone for giving gifts at this time of year, or for even putting on a red suit to do so while we keep explaining what the first Christmas actually involved.

How you, your family, and your church do Christmas, and what you do with Santa, is really up to you. For example, if a church is having an outreach in a local park, with Christmas carols, speakers, and a guy dressed as Santa to give gifts to the children there, and if the message of Christ is proclaimed from the stage, I have no real problems with that.

If that is not to your liking, fine, do not feature him there – or elsewhere. And if you think I should be burned at the stake for daring to suggest such things, well, all I can say is, “Merry Christmas and God bless you!” Let me close in the same way that I did in my earlier piece, linked to above, with some words from a Reformed pastor:

So folks, lighten up, rejoice in your liberty of conscience in Christ. If you choose not to celebrate Christmas, then the Lord bless you – take advantage of having the day off and read a good book or something. But grant your brother the same liberty of conscience – and literally, for God’s sake, do not create a law where He Himself has not done so. But as for me and my house, we intend to feast and celebrate and rejoice that the Lord has come into the world with a cheerful heart and a good conscience. http://atthefeetof-jesus.blogspot.com/2012/08/by-rev-brian-abshire-on-may-4th-2008.html

[1591 words]

13 Replies to “On Saint Nicholas”

  1. Dear Bill, to use the old worn quote “ the reason for the season” Jesus Christ our Messiah our Saviour born in human form, All those years ago. We do use a little Father Christmas in our extended family, remembering St Nicholas’ generosity.
    I wish you and all your family a peaceful, blessed and holy Christmas this awkward year of 2020.
    Mark Bryant

  2. Thank you, Bill, for the message about the real St. Nicholas. Some years ago, I interviewed some Catholic friends from Poland about the Christmas customs observed in the “old country.” They included the story of St. Nicholas and told how a religious man dressed as St. Nicholas would go from house to house and question the children about their faith and their knowledge of the Bible. They stressed how much more spiritual the observance of the Christmas season is in Europe. This led me to read more about St. Nicholas, who lived in the country of Mysia in Asia Minor. Nicholas was known for his works of charity, and the account went on to say he knew of three sisters in his village who lacked dowries so that they could marry well and avoid being sold into slavery. Each night during Advent Nicholas would pass by their house and throw gold coins down the smoke hole or chimney. Miraculously, the coins fell into the stockings the girls had hung to dry near the fire. Based on this miracle, people began the custom of hanging stockings from the fireplace mantel during the Christmas season. I managed to write a concise, one-page version of “The Story of St. Nicholas,” and mentioned December 6 as St. Nicholas Day. I printed the account on sheets of copy paper and put each into a green frame to give as Christmas gifts that year.

    Incidentally, my mother, to whom the Christmas season was very important, passed away after spending the evening of St. Nicholas Day with her grandchildren this year.

  3. I tend to agree because there is little enough remembrance of Jesus in our culture today without giving people an excuse to remove Christianity from Christmas.

    Having said that I’m pretty sure Christmas celebrations were originally more to do with the birth of the new year (the solstice is on the 22nd of December) and we are not even sure what year Jesus was born let alone what day of what month.

    Perhaps because I am from a Pentecostal background I sometimes wonder whether Jesus was born at Pentecost. He probably wasn’t born in the middle of winter because the shepherds were watching their flocks by night and living in the field (Luke 2:8) and it is also very unlikely that any ruler would have called for a tax census in winter when people would be at their poorest and when it would have put undue hardship on the nation. A much better time to take a tax census would be when the crops are coming in and even God’s tax (the tithe) was meant to be from the first-fruits, so there is a precedent for taxing at that time of year.

    So, perhaps, just like Jesus was crucified at Passover and is our sacrificial Lamb, likewise Jesus is referred to as the first of many (Heb 12:23, Rev 22:13, Heb 1:6, Col 1:18 etc.) and so it would be in tune with the universe for Him to be born on the Feast of First-fruits i.e. Pentecost.

    My thinking has nothing to do with the fact that Pentecost is also known as the Feast of Weeks.

    Merry Christmas and may God bless.

  4. Thank you so much for this as this is how I was taught about St.Nikolas.
    Having grown up in Central Europe tradition was that St. Nikolaus would deliver gifts to children, mostly a bag filled with nuts, mandarins and lollies!
    My ancestorial background is Ukrainian, where custom is that St. Nikolaus brings gifts to children on the eve of St.Nikolaus and place them under the pillow or bed of each child. I still follow this tradition with my kids and therefore don’t do presents on Christmas.

  5. Bill, all I have to say is…Ho, Ho, Ho and Merry Christmas. May the Lord’s blessing be with you and family. Thank you for all you do to help spread the GOOD NEWS.
    Ron Adams

  6. In regard to Michael Weeks’ comment, why does everyone assume the winter in Israel is too cold for shepherds to have their sheep grazing in the open? Israel has a warm Mediterranean climate, which is far different from the snow-clad Currier & Ives scenes so many people think of at Christmas. As a result, I should think livestock can be outdoors in the winter in Israel. I have read that the rainy season comes in October but that the weather in the following months is mild.

  7. The Christmas party poopers are as bad as the king james only people…

  8. Thanks again Bill. Very informative. My mother never told us that Santa Claus was real, and if we asked about him, she would tell us the story of St Nicholas. We used our own imaginations of course and looked forward to our stockings on Christmas morning; but we knew that we were celebrating the birth of Jesus. By the way, I thought the hat your were wearing in the social media photo suited you rather well.

  9. The key part is IF Christ is proclaimed. Too often he isn’t when a Santa is involved and too often the kids are NOT listening because the want to see Santa OR play with what he gave them. He unfortunately for even most Christian kids has become the reason for the season.

    Especially looking at letters to Santa we see kids asking him to do things, heal mommy get daddy a new job etc, that they should be asking Jesus about. I understand trying not to fight over it but as mentioned Santa and St. Nicholas are two VERY different people and we can’t allow ourselves to completely fall in line with the world on Santa simply because he is LOOSELY based on Saint Nicholas. (We let a lot of things into the church because they are fun or part of the magic of the season or it is just a little thing. Little things add up)

    It really saddens me some kids will even pray to Santa this time of year and do good this time of year NOT for Christ or because it is right but to receive toys. It might be necessary for the soundness of our children’s faith to cut out Santa. (It may be just a little indulgence but a little leaven leavens the whole loaf.)

    We can allow the non Christians to believe in him if the so wish and teach our children not to interfere but with all the commercialism and the temptation to write off the Santa shtick as temporary and nothing to worry about just and piece of the world we can name and claim as our own perhaps being different and distinct from the world is truly necessary and needed in these times. We’ve been mixing Christ and the world far too long. It is like watering down fine booze. Christ must be taken straight.

    BTW I like the gift giving and the lights, to a point the light contests are out of control, and the trees with ornaments but when it come to Santa he is NOT saint Nicholas and he has in today’s society usurped Jesus as the whole reason for Christmas. If the Saints in heaven do look upon earth and see what goes on I don’t think Nicholas would be happy with the church’s involvement with Santa.

    Personally I think he was born Tishri 1. I think that is supposed to be the time the messiah arrives. But Hanukkah is good. And Hanukkah bushes.

  10. A beautiful message Bill, one that sets an historical and joyful Christian scene. A scene in stark contrast to the killjoy mentality of today’s current events. Well done, thank you and Merry Christmas.

  11. I appreciate the article on the origin of Santa Claus and I think it is good to debate this topic. I’m certainly a person who goes in with decorations and a Christmas tree – both of which require no false portrayals to my children and grandchildren. Here are some points that have come out of my thoughts on the subject over a number of years:
    1. It’s fine for the informed to allow a bit of leeway on the acceptance of Santa Claus, but for those growing up (children) and those not knowledgeable about it, I’m not sure it is helpful to the future narrative of the next generation.
    2. The Scriptures and I’m thinking particularly the Old Testament does not encourage or accept myth unless it is being spoken against or used illustratively in a message. Those OT characters are historical and the Israelites were never encouraged to teach their children anything other than God’s acts that occurred in real time and space. All their celebrations/feasts were based on the reality of what God had done for them in history – that should be a message to the Christian church.
    3. I’m not so sure children are able to tell the difference between fact and fiction. Allowing them to absorb the cultural Santa Claus is speaking to them with fork tongue. On the one hand they get told to believe in Jesus and that he is historical. On the other hand, they are also actively or passively allowed to absorb the cultural Santa Claus. When they grow up, we wonder why they treat Jesus as just another myth or fantasy they had grown up with. After all, if we were not upfront in telling them that Santa isn’t a real person who comes down the chimney at night (if they have one), how are they meant to process our different words about Jesus and Santa? Both are assumed true to a child. But when they grow up, we tell them that only Jesus was true. If we allowed them to accept the fantasies/falsities about Santa, how can we expect them to believe us when it comes to Jesus?
    I do see a problem with promoting Santa but everyone has to come to their own convictions about the matter. However, positively, I think we have plenty for children to celebrate at Christmas without introducing the figure of Santa Claus.
    Thanks Bill for your article and God bless this Christmas.

  12. Also there is a line in a carol, here come Santa Claus, that says “he knows that we’re God’s children and that makes everything right” which seems to be attempting to tell kids you can be Christian and believe in Santa cause he is too. I have even seen nativity scenes with Santa with the wise men or even in place of.

    Dr Brown had a recent article on the maccabees and the Hellenization of Israel in the days of Alexander and beyond. Today’s church has it’s own Hellenization problem. It has been a major problem since the 60’s and even in the late 1800’s we were seeing it.

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